By Shivi Verma
Shri Rakeshbhai, founder of the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission, Dharampur, has breathed fresh life into Jainism by popularising it among the young and restless, says Shivi Verma
It is not easy to pump buoyancy and life into the human spirit, for it is so obscured by the volatility of the mind and the myriad desires of the body. However, for Shri Rakeshbhai, or Bapa as he is popularly known, such a feat is all part of a day’s work.
No wonder his followers, mostly charged and inspired youth, exhibit the vibrance of a mustard field in full bloom. Joyous and eager, filled to the brim with enthusiasm, they vie with each other to proclaim their guru’s teachings or the tenets of Jainism.
Alpa Gandhi, the public relations officer of Shrimad Rajchandra Mission, is a classic example. Such was her boundless fervor that in the two-hour journey to the ashram by car, she paused only once in her invocation of her guru, the ashram, its services, its beauty, and its outreach, and that was to say her prayers! A guru capable of germinating such devotion in a disciple was worth meeting, I concluded.
Shrimad Rajchandra Mission is situated on a verdant hilltop in Dharampur village in Gujarat. Based on the spiritual vision of Shrimad Rajchandra, a saint born in 19th century Gujarat, and best known for being Mahatma Gandhi’s revered spiritual mentor, the ashram consists of 223 acres of sprawling greenery, dotted by pristine white structures.
The vista fitted my idea of an ashram to a T. Our rooms in the guesthouse were spacious, elegant and sparkling clean with French windows framing a spectacular view of the intense green valley. The next day, dressed in white as I had been instructed to, I hastened to the large, spacious dining hall. The hall was supported by white pillars instead of walls, and the silent but continuous flow of white-clad devotees was visible from a distance.
|He quoted humorous anecdotes, recalled funny moments with his disciples, and kept his large family in splits of laughter|
The breakfast of upma, khakra (dried Gujarati chappati) and masala milk was light, sattvic, and delicious. While I cleared my plate nonchalantly, Alpa put water on her empty plate, poured the stream of insignificant leftovers into her mug and washed it down her throat. “Bapa says that organisms develop on leftover food, which later on get killed, therefore we must wipe our plates spotlessly clean,” she explained. Jainism in practice!
We now entered the huge main auditorium where the Master was to address his followers. There, as everywhere else, the ashram’s meticulous organisational prowess was evident. Numbers of meditation seats with backs were arranged neatly, accommodating at least 800 people. Rakeshbhai walked in, a plump bearded man dressed in white, and took his seat on the podium. After taking the participants through a meditative exercise, he began his lecture. Though most of it was in Gujarati, it was apparent that the tone was affectionate and fatherly. He quoted humorous anecdotes, recalled funny moments with his disciples, remembered them fondly by name and kept his large family in splits of laughter. He taught tiny modules of meditation like snapshot meditation, sound meditation and even toilet meditation. “In modern times it is difficult to find time to sit for meditation for a long period at a stretch. Therefore, these small moments when you are with yourself can be used to go deeper within yourself,” he said.
Later, Alpa and Rakshit, a member of the hospitality team, took me and my photographer, Kuntesh, on a whirlwind tour of the ashram and its many wings.
We first started with a visit to the mini auditorium. Bhavin Rupani, trustee of the ashram, played a small film of the activities of the ashram for us to have an overview of it. The secular vision of the mission and its leader touched my heart as I came across shots of Shri Rakeshbhai welcoming and openly embracing leaders of other faiths and spiritual orders. The film touched upon the varied philanthropic activities carried out by the ashram in terms of health care, education of the tribals and underprivileged, women care, animal care, and environmental care. But what stood out was the manner in which eager youths were lending their hands in realising the dream of their Master. There was not a single shot where they could not be seen going out of their way to win the heart of their guru. No wonder he is adoringly referred to as a leader of the youth.
Bhavin said, “Even though I was born in the Jain faith and followed its many observances ritualistically, I never knew it had so much dynamism or was so contemporary until I met Bapa.”
Celibacy is considered to be a tough and demanding vow but Shrimad Rajchandra Mission’s atmarpits or brahmacharis hop like happy uncaged birds, with not an iota of regret for the vow they’ve taken.
Apurva Kothari, an atmarpit, says, “Not everyone is chosen to be an atmarpit. Though age, education, inclination and parental consent are essential criteria, the final call is taken by Gurudev himself.” Sri Rakeshbhai gives the atmarpit diksha to young unmarried devotees on the day of his birth, September 26, each year.
|Animals are treated as fellow creatures by the ashramites |
and are tenderly looked after
He has grouped his followers into categories. Garbharpits are kids between four-12, Samarpits are adolescents between 13-16, Jivanarpits are youth in the age group of 16-25, Hridayarpits are mature youth between 26-30. Sarvarpits are householders between the age group of 31-40 and Sharnarpits, Premarpits and Charnarpits are senior disciples. Shri Rakeshbhai has been attracting seekers to him since a very young age. In the ‘70s when he was still a child, people would be attracted to his luminous presence and seek him out for spiritual guidance.
We were also taken to the Shrimad Rajchandra Gurukul developed to uplift and educate the tribal population in and around the Dharampur village, and the Animal Care centre where animals are rehabilitated, and well looked after in their twilight years.
Abhay Jasani, the suave President of the Srimad Rajchandra Mission, and head of Shrimad Rajchandra Hospital, took us on a tour of the multispecialty hospital built to provide modern healthcare amenities to the underprivileged. Abhay said, “I was a jet setting CEO who lived life in the fast lane. I thought I was a happy man. One day as I sat waiting for my wife who had gone to meet Gurudev, I happened to hear him on a televised programme. He was saying ‘You call yourself the master of your life, whereas any outsider can make you dance to his tunes by simply saying two rude words. Wherever you go you keep giving your remote control to others.’ I had to admit that despite all my supposed powers, I was a weak man. That moment I decided to devote my life to the mission.”
By this time it was already night and time to return to the main ashram. A meditation camp that was underway was in its last day, and the main auditorium was filled with thousands of disciples, young and old, singing bhajans in praise of the guru and dancing the dandiya. The guru sat on the podium, enjoying their childlike enthusiasm. His one look was enough to bring his beloved disciples to tears. Most of them couldn’t stop welling up and sobbing out of gratitude. John Mobley, a young follower from USA who has left his birthplace to come and live permanently at the ashram, says, “I met Bapa in the summers of 2009 in New York. Instantly I felt a deep connect with him and knew that my future lay at his feet.”
Non-sectarianism is such an all-pervading spirit that nowhere did I encounter the partisanship most spiritual organisations promote. The seeds are sown quite young. Sapna Shroff, coordinator of SRD Srimadrajchandra Divine Touch programme, says, “This programme is divided into three categories. Children between three and eight years are taught about different cultures, saints and the values they expounded. To children between nine and 13 years, practical and scientific teachings of Jainism are imparted in a light and playful manner. Children in the age group of 13 to 16 are trained under the programme called Spiritual Touch where they are given spiritual tools to combat modern challenges like peer pressure, anger management, and emotional intelligence.”
Thus introduced to the world of the guru, I was ready, eager and willing to meet the Master next morning. Excerpts from the interview:
Did you have a spiritual awakening or were you born self-realised?
I was born in Bombay in 1966 to Rekhaben and Dilipbhai Jhaveri. Since the age of four, I would keep going into trance. Definitely the sadhana of my past lives was sprouting early shoots. One day when I was seven years old I came across a picture of Shrimad Rajchandra and immediately had a samadhi-like experience. All my past lives unfolded like pages of a book before me. I acknowledged Shrimadji as my guru and surrendered completely at his lotus feet. From that moment, my spiritual growth gathered momentum. I would frequently slip into meditation, constantly experiencing a divine energy enveloping me.
Please tell our readers about your spiritual journey.
In 1983, I decided to devote the rest of my life to the pursuit and spread of spirituality. I wanted to stay a celibate. My parents agreed, but my mother had one condition – that I finish my university education, to which I agreed. After that I went to Hampi in South India. There inside a cave I spent one-and-a-half years in meditation. Thereafter, I travelled to places like Palitana, Idar, Mt. Abu and Dumas to engage in silence, study and practise.
Apart from studying the works of Shrimadji, I studied Shwetambar and Digambar Jain scriptures, while simultaneously studying Sanskrit, logic, Indian philosophies, yoga, astrology and classical Indian music too. In 1988, I completed the threeyear BA course within three months from the Osmania University of Hyderabad. In 1991, I earned a gold medal in philosophy from Mumbai’s Kalina University under the post graduate course. I completed my formal education by earning a PhD in self-realisation based on Shrimadji’s creation, Shri Atmasiddhi Shastra, from Mumbai University.
I started this ashram 11 years ago. It has 68 centres all over the world.
What is it about Shrimadji that inspired and motivated you? How has Shrimadji’s philosophy contributed to spirituality and universal truth?
The moment I saw Shrimadji’s photograph, I intuitively connected to him. I was inspired by his emphasis to embark on an inner journey through introspection, contemplation and meditation, rather than focussing only on performing rituals. Also, his belief that liberation can be attained through pure, divine love has had a profound impact upon me. Mahatma Gandhi too, has attributed his faith in the values of truth and ahimsa to the teachings of Shrimadji. Bringing Bhagwan Mahavira’s teachings alive, Shrimadji stressed the importance of selfrealisation. He taught how one can strike a balance, practising spirituality, while performing one’s duties. Being a householder himself, he led by example.
Jainism stresses nonviolence. Do you really feel that that it is possible to lead a completely nonviolent existence?
No, I agree that it is not possible to lead a completely nonviolence existence, but we can at least minimise it as much as possible. Christians believe in nonviolence but they limit it to humans. Hindus too believe in it but their observance extends only till animals. Only Jainism takes it to the level of plants and micro-organisms.
In the name of religion there is much infighting in the world. Why do people misinterpret their faith?
This happens because people who are still evolving associate their faiths with their egos. When people who have yet to transcend their base natures confront a religiously sensitive issue, there occurs a clash between their animal instinct and divine instinct, and the animal instinct overpowers. So whenever there is a provocation in the name of religion, it is your hurt ego which is retaliating. You stick to tools, techniques and form of the religion, rather than to its essence, its teachings and its values. It is like piloting a plane but staying on the runway instead of taking off. For the same reason I discourage people who look up to me for a solution to their problems. They begin to cling to the form of the guru rather than the essence of the guru. I don’t want to create followers. I want to produce leaders.
Jain gurus do not travel outside the country but you do. Why?
I was born in the Shwetambar sect of Jainism. But I am not sectarian. Moreover, I give myself these freedoms because I consider myself one degree behind the Digambara Jains who follow these principles unwaveringly and strictly. When I shall deem myself fit for that sort of renunciation, I too shall walk that path rigidly.
What has been your contribution to Jainism? Any misconception that you have been able to dispel?
I am considered a reformist in the Jain community. In spirituality there are two paths to realising the highest truths. One is sadhana, or spiritual practise, and second is prabhavana which means to reach out and spread the message through various means. Jainism over the years had become too dogmatic and ritualistic. The missionary spirit was missing in it. All that I have done is to reintroduce the concepts of seva and bhakti among the neophytes who resonate instantly with this spirit. Moreover, I firmly believe that to be spiritual means to be joyful. When you are joyful you naturally want to reach out and share that joy with others. The world becomes an extension of your inner self. The big set-up that you see is nothing but a rudimentary organisation needed to meet the requirements of so many people who flock to the mission. Basically, my purpose is to spread joy, love and peace.
You attract youth like a flower attracts bees. Why do you think this is so?
I present dharma in a logical, practical and palatable manner. The youth learn how spiritual practices improve the quality of everyday life through simple tools like glad acceptance, and short meditations. The key is that they are drawn to living for a higher purpose: striving to attain permanent happiness, so that renouncing the lower is no longer an act but a result. Once they are given the right understanding, this changes their outlook completely. Therefore, rather than stressing on austerity, I stress upon right understanding.
If truth is one, why are there so many paths?
The Truth is one. However, it can be expressed in different forms. You can choose any path that suits you to free yourself from attachment. Why should this lead to confusion? If you visit a confectionery shop, you will have a variety of sweets to choose from. You can quell your hunger by selecting any of them. It is the same with religions. This shows the richness of spirituality, as there are so many options available, offering you the freedom to follow the path that appeals to you. Only when you become narrow-minded and sectarian while following one path do you obstruct your progress.
What is moksha?
Moksha or liberation means gaining freedom from inner vices while you are in this body. Videhamukti means gaining freedom from the cycle of birth and death. You are never reborn once you attain that stage. When you leave the body, you attain siddhatva, which is freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
Where is the human race headed? What is the ultimate destiny of mankind? Does the year 2012 signify a momentous shift in human consciousness?
There is no such thing as the final destiny of mankind. The world will forever be the way it is now. Though there definitely are different eras but to think that one fine day all of the human race will evolve together into a higher being is very illogical. There will always be the interplay of three gunas and good and evil existing simultaneously. Different souls have a different trajectory and each has its own time of evolution. And the universe is programmed to make space for each soul’s sojourn. There is nothing so momentous about the year 2012. Let the year pass and you will know. There may be a partial upheavals but to think that one day the cosmos will come to an end is not true.
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